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Clipping the Raptor, Trimming the Budget
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By ScottBittle on July 22nd, 2009
The Senate's decision to stop funding for F-22 Raptor fighters is a victory for the Obama administration, but it also serves as an object lesson in how much work it takes to make cuts in the federal budget.
The F-22 is a high-tech, stealth fighter plane originally designed to dogfight with the Soviets, and ever since the end of the Cold War there's been a debate over whether the U.S. really needs more of them. The Obama administration argues we don't, and President Obama vowed to veto the military spending bill if the Raptor stayed in it. Everyone says it's a big win for the White House, but how big that "win" really is depends more on the future than the present.
When you're talking about the federal budget, it's easy to lose perspective. The numbers are so huge, and the media coverage so confusing, that it's easy to lose track. The Senate decision cut $1.75 billion from the budget – a grand total of seven aircraft. In addition, this doesn't mean that the F-22 is headed for the airplane graveyard – there are 187 Raptors still in the pipeline; this just means the Pentagon won't order any more.
And, as always, it's worth remembering that while $1.75 billion is a lot of money, it's not much in a federal budget of more than $3.6 trillion, with a record $1.2 trillion projected deficit. Last year the government spent $616 billion on the military alone, one-fifth of the 2008 total budget.
So why get excited about this? Well, lots of critics of military spending say this may prove to be a watershed in thinking about military spending, and say this opens the door to a hard-headed look at what we really need for national defense and what we don't. Supporters of the Raptor say this is shortsighted, and someday we might regret losing our technological edge in airpower. Not to mention the risk of losing defense jobs.
What this also shows, however, is how hard it is to make any cuts in the federal budget. Again, we're talking about seven planes. And while the Senate voted decisively to eliminate those aircraft, the Raptor had plenty of supporters, and it took a full-court press by the president and the secretary of defense to make it happen.
So the significance of the F-22 vote is how it may shape the budget debate in the future. Our long-term budget problems are enormous, and quite honestly they've got much less to do with military spending than with entitlements like Medicare. But certainly we can't solve our budget problems without looking at the whole budget, including defense.
This was a tough fight precisely because of the long-term implications for how the government buys its weapons. If this leads to more effective defense spending, then that's a plus. That also, by the way, is a debate the public should play a role in; no one can argue that the American people don't have a vested interest in national security. But if it continues to take enormous political effort to cut relatively small dollar amounts, we'll never get ahead of the enormous fiscal challenge ahead of us.
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